Different types of clouds and how to identify them

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Looking at the sky and seeing clouds is very common. Clouds are not only indicative of rain and storms, but they can give us information about the meteorology. There are different types of clouds in the sky and each one has different characteristics and formation conditions. In this article we are going to learn about the different types of clouds, what they mean and why they form.

A large grey cloud forming over a city skyline.Air movement affects cloud formation.

How a cloud forms?

A large, pyramid shaped cloud, formed above the seaCloud types differ due to condensation temperatures.

Before we begin to describe the types of clouds we have to explain how they form. For there to be clouds in the sky, there must be a cooling of the air. The cycle begins with the Sun. When the sun’s rays heat the Earth’s surface, they also heat the surrounding air. High-temperature air becomes less dense, so it tends to rise and be replaced by colder, denser air. As you ascend in altitude, the environmental thermal gradient causes the temperatures to be lower. For this reason, the air is cooling.

When it reaches a cooler layer of air, it condenses into water vapor. This water vapor is invisible to the naked eye, as it is made up of water droplets and ice particles. The particles are so small that they are able to be held in the air by slight vertical currents.

Why are they different types of clouds?

Differences between cloud formations are due to condensation temperatures. There are some clouds that form at higher temperatures and some lower ones. The lower the formation temperature, the “thicker” the cloud will be. There are also some types of clouds that give precipitation and others that do not.

If the temperature is too low, the cloud that forms will be made up of ice crystals.

Another factor that affects cloud formation is air movement. Clouds that are created when the air is at rest tend to appear in layers or strata. On the other hand, those that are formed between winds or air with strong vertical currents present a great vertical development. Usually the latter are the cause of rains and storms.

High-level clouds

We are listing the different types of clouds based on the altitude at which they form.

Cirrus clouds

A high - level type of cloud named CirrusTypes of clouds and their characteristics: Cirrus

These are white clouds, transparent and without internal shadows. They are also known as “horse tail” clouds. These clouds are nothing more than clouds formed by ice crystals due to the altitude at which they are found. They are like long, thin filaments that have a more or less regular distribution in the form of parallel lines.

It can be seen with the naked eye looking at the sky. It appears as if the sky had been painted with brush strokes. If the entire sky is covered with cirrus clouds, it is very likely that a sharp change in weather will occur in 24 hours. Usually, a sharp decrease in temperatures.

Cirrocumulus clouds

High-level clouds, Cirrocumulus with blue sky in the backgroundTypes of clouds and their characteristics: Cirrocumulus

These clouds form an almost continuous layer that has a wrinkled surface appearance and with rounded shapes as if they were small cotton flakes. The clouds are totally white without presenting any shadow. When the sky appears covered with this type of clouds, it is said to be boring. It is similar to the weaving of sheep.

They often appear next to cirrus clouds and indicate that the weather will change in about twelve hours. When they appear, a storm usually precedes. Obviously they do not always indicate the same. If so, meteorology and weather forecasting would be much easier.

Cirrostratus clouds

A veil like Cirrostratus type clouds formig a halo in the skyTypes of clouds and their characteristics: Cirrostratus

They seem at first glance like a veil from which it is difficult to distinguish the details. Sometimes the edges can be noticed as they are long and wide striated. They are easily identified because they form a halo in the sky around both the sun and the moon. They tend to form following cirrus clouds and indicate that bad weather or a warm front is coming.

Mid-level clouds

There are two types of mid-level clouds:

Altocumulus clouds

Mid - level clouds named Altocumulos of irregular structureTypes of clouds and their characteristics: Altocumulos

They are flake-shaped clouds of medium size and irregular structure. These clouds contain flakes and ripples in their lower part. Altocumulus indicates that bad weather begins either due to rains or storms.

Altostratus clouds

Blue sky covered with Altrostratus (High Stratus) clouds typeTypes of cloud and their characteristics: Altostratus

These are clouds with thin layers and some denser areas. In most cases the sun can be seen through the cloud cover. The appearance is similar to irregular spots. They portend light rain due to a drop in temperature.

Low-level clouds

These are the clouds closest to the surface. Low-level clouds include 3 types:

Stratocumulus clouds

Sky completely covered by low - level cloud type called StratocumulusTypes of clouds and their characteristics: Stratocumulus

They are those that have undulations similar to elongated cylinders. They also have some ripples in different shades of gray. It is rare that they bring rain.

Stratus clouds

Sky covered by low - level type of cloud called Stratus clouds     Types of clouds and their characteristics: Stratus

The appearance is that of a grayish haze without being able to see the well-defined structures. It has some buttresses of different degrees of opacity. During the colder months they are able to endure throughout the day, giving the landscape a more gloomy appearance. When spring comes they appear during the early morning and disperse during the day. These clouds indicate good weather.

Multi-level or moderate vertical clouds

These are the clouds that present massive degrees of size and rainfall.

Nimbostratus clouds

Heavy and gray multi - level clouds of Nimbostratus tyoeTypes of clouds and their characteristics: Nimbostratus

They appear as a regular dark gray layer with varying degrees of opacity. It is because the density varies throughout the cloud. They are typical of the spring and summer rains. They can also be found during precipitation in the form of snow.

Cumulus mediocris clouds

A very large multi - level cloud called CumulusTypes of clouds and their characteristics: Cumulus mediocris

They have a denser appearance and very marked shadows, to the point of blocking the sun. They are gray clouds. Its base is horizontal, but its upper part has large protrusions. Cumulus clouds correspond to good weather when there is little ambient humidity and little vertical air movement. They are capable of causing downpours and storms.

Towering vertical clouds

Cumulonimbus clouds

CumulonimbusCumulonimbus

They are the largest and most massive-looking clouds with great vertical development. They are gray and completely cover the sun. These are the typical ones that occur in storms and even produce hail.

In addition to above mentioned types of clouds that can be observed in the sky, there are also extreme-level and very high-level clouds. Extreme level clouds include Noctilucent clouds, also known as night shining clouds. These are tenuous cloud-like phenomena in the upper atmosphere of Earth. Very high – level clouds include Nitric acid and water polar stratospheric clouds.

Lastly, there are two types of surface – layer clouds: mist and fog.


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